Looking for Fried Catfish in Maryland

Fried catfish was on the menu of the restaurant where we were eating lunch. My Caplan niece’s boyfriend was excited. He usually had a hard time finding it locally. “Down there,” he assumed we knew he meant south Louisiana, “you can get catfish at any place to eat.” During lunch I found out that Jimmy Brigniac had a Cajun father, and for the first time in my life I met someone who was descended from the legendary Acadians of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” story poem. I was intrigued.

In his soft southern accent, Jimmy told us, “The way I heard it, the Brigniacs came from a little town with the same name in southern France. Years later when descendants visited there and asked the residents if there were any Brigniacs still around, the (villagers) turned their thumbs outward, meaning the Brigniacs had all gone away. Some of them went to Canada, like my family. I heard that two brothers came down to Louisiana with the Acadians (who had been expelled by the British in the mid-18th century). They had a fight, so each brother settled on different sides of the Mississippi.”

I was surprised to find out later that Jimmy had actually been born and raised in Maryland. But his siblings and he had spent many summers in his father’s hometown, which was between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He bonded with his Cajun family and learned to love hunting and fishing. I wondered what wildlife he hunted. “Just about anything that moved,” he said. When I asked him if they still used pirogues for fishing, I accented the word on its second syllable. He didn’t reply for a few seconds and then he nodded, “We fished in flat-bottom boats and pirogues, too. (He prounounced them ‘pee/ rogues.’) They had flat bottoms so you can go up and down the bayous, which are shallower than a river. My grandparents only spoke Cajun French to each other when they didn’t want us to understand them. They had a little restaurant on Lake Maurepas. My grandmother was a really good cook, and they had everything on the menu besides catfish, including alligator. Uncle Marion could catch alligators.” He looked wistful. “Oh, I loved hanging out with my folks, going to each other’s homes, eating a big Cajun dinner outside on long picnic tables.”

The following week we returned to the same restaurant where I had met Jimmy. This visit he showed me a small twist of aluminum foil. He grinned, “This time, I’m going to make the catfish taste more like it does down home.” He unrolled the twist. It contained a small heaping of Cajun spices. When his platter of fried catfish arrived, he sprinkled it all over with the spices and then took a big bite. “Now that’s more like it,” he said with appreciation.

Before we finished eating, I had learned a lot more about his Cajun background. “Would you like to go back there to live someday?” I asked him.

Jimmy nodded and said, “Yes. There’s nothing better than living on the river, taking it easy.”

Later I wished that I’d added, “and you’d have an endless supply of fried catfish.”